Kansas Newspaper to Regain Items Seized in Police Raid

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi headlined “Kansas newspaper to regain items seized in controversial police raid”:

After nearly a week of intense criticism and national headlines, the local prosecutor behind a controversial police raid on a Kansas newspaper office has agreed to withdraw the search warrant and return items taken from the paper.

The reversal, first reported by TV station KSHB and confirmed by the attorney for the Marion County Record, followed days of outraged reactions from press advocacy organizations, which called the police seizure Friday a violation of state and federal laws.

Attorney Bernard Rhodes told The Washington Post that County Attorney Joel Ensey withdrew the warrant Wednesday and would return computers, cellphones and records taken by Marion police and sheriff’s deputies from the newspaper headquarters and the home of Eric Meyer, its publisher and editor.

A day after the raid, Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, collapsed and died. The newspaper attributed her death to stress brought on by the search of the home she shared with her son.

While the newspaper and Meyer now appear to be out of legal jeopardy, Rhodes suggested that this is unlikely to be the end of the incident. He urged state officials to investigate how the raid came about, including the role played by Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who led the search.

The Record had been investigating Cody’s departure from the Kansas City, Mo., police force this year, and he had threatened to sue the paper if it published allegations of misconduct, Rhodes said.

The raid of the small weekly newspaper — virtually unprecedented in the United States — was apparently prompted by a dispute involving a local restaurant owner in Marion, a town of about 1,900 residents located about 60 miles from Wichita. Kari Newell claimed that the paper’s reporters had illegally stolen her identity to access a government database that contained records of her arrest for drunken driving in 2008.

The newspaper denied it had done so, but the allegation led officials to seek a search warrant from a local magistrate judge to search the newspaper and the Meyer home.

The county attorney said he had asked a court to withdraw the warrant he sought last week for alleged identity theft and unlawful use of a computer.

“I have come to the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized,” Ensey said. “As a result, I have submitted a proposed order asking the court to release the evidence seized. I have asked local law enforcement to return the material seized to the owners of the property.”

Rhodes called the withdrawal of the warrant “a promising first step” in restoring the newspaper and publisher’s rights. But, he added, “it doesn’t do anything to undo the past and regrettably, it doesn’t bring back Joan Meyer.”

Media groups that had protested the police raid cheered Wednesday’s developments.

“The Record never should have been subject to this chilling search in the first place,” Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement. “This raid never should have happened.”

His group called on the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation into the raid, including why a magistrate judge, Laura Viar, signed the search warrant. The KBI said Tuesday that it had launched a criminal probe but did not specify whether it was focused on the actions of the newspaper or the behavior of the police. The agency said Wednesday that its investigation remains open, though it said it would no longer consider the items being returned as evidence.

PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression, said returning the items and withdrawing the warrant “is a first step toward accountability in this unconscionable breach of press freedom.” The organization’s Shannon Jankowski said in a statement that those responsible for the raid “should be held to account for violating the newspaper’s rights.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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